casual reflections on L.A.’’’ s latest urban anomaly. by daniel philli ps
Caught in the crawling jumble of the 405 the other day, a clever billboard caught my eye. Aimed at the seething car-logged masses (frustrated once again by the inefficiency of their daily commute to and from the far flung stimulations of L.A.), it posed a simple question–“Do park signs in Playa Vista really say ‘Please walk on the grass’?....come see for yourself .®” It was referring of course to the latest (and perhaps the last) new enclave of Los Angeles—tucked away to the west in what was once an empty rift between the beach cities of Marina Del Rey and Westchester: Playa Vista. After over a century of “careless” development in the city, Playa Vista’s ambition to establish itself as “the one we finally got right” is steeped in notions of economic autonomy, gestures of urbanity and place-based civic pride--“the charm and spirit of a small town woven into the heart of the big city.®” Forged from the convenience of a blank slate, it proposes its high density, walkable, mixed-use scenario for 30,000 as an antidote to sprawling placelessness and auto-dependency, where you can walk to do your dry-cleaning, give Sparky a walk while you get a cup of coffee, have a serendipitous run-in with a neighbor in (as the billboard dutifully points out) one of its many public open spaces. Intrigued by these promises, and the cryptic nature of its maskon-mask advertising strategy (A billboard referring to sign, referring to a park), I decided to take it up on its offer and check it out for myself on a grey afternoon in November. Turns out, you can in fact walk on the grass (although this is not explicitly stated on the signs)—that is, of course, if it’s between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Oh, and leave your glassware behind (seems sensible enough), and, oh wait the sign goes on…18 bullet points further clarify the preferred processes of park strolling—No unleashed pets outside the “designated off leash areas”. No portable barbeques, No organized sports-In fact, no rollerblades, scooters, or bikes. No noise-prone groups of 15 or more without a permit; and perhaps the most curious of all officially posted stipulations for a park—“No loitering”. As I wandered its tranquil streets, more signs began to emerge. I soon realized that Playa Vista is a city saturated with signs of all varieties. In fact, they’re everywhere—varying in their placement, size, shape, color, subject, and degree of signification. And more than merely scripting the modes of acceptable behavior or suggesting the efficient means of navigation, Playa Vista’s ecology of cunning imagery possesses a deeper semiotic conceit--projecting ideas about itself as a place, as a community, as a final solution to the ills of the anonymous metropolis that surrounds it. Embraced by some as the hopeful precursor of a New Urbanism, and abhorred by many as an abomination, the diametric debates of good vs. evil typically rehearsed with regard to Playa Vista are well known. But to view this city through the unlikely lens of its many signs, is to reveal the full form of its idiosyncrasy, and the nuanced ideological, geo-political, socioeconomic, urban phenomena that have determined its growth, shaped its perception, and continue to underlie its development.
Signs of Control The 18 point manifesto of park conduct wasn’t alone. Every park (and Playa prides itself on the sheer number of them) has a unique set. Yet another open space just a three minute walk south of Crescent Park, an artificially turfed nine hole putting green (“Playa Links”) has an equally curious list officially posted guidelines, ranging from the acceptable choice of clubs--“Please use putters only (no wedges)”, to the preferred techniques of putter handling--“Please do not swing higher than your knees”, concluded reassuringly (just in case you may have forgotten why you came after reading the sign) with the bolded phrase “Please have fun!”. Playa Vista dog owners out for an afternoon walk would be hardpressed to avoid the signage reminding them to scoop their poop--and who could refuse, given the prevalence of courtesy “Dogipot” litterbag dispensers placed at 50 foot intervals at the perimeter of any given open space, interspersed with signs warning one not to drink the reclaimed sprinkler water (a cocktail of signs dedicated to the direct or implied managing of excrement). Even for the construction workers (who appear at times to actually outnumber the residents in Playa) there are signs outlining appropriate clothing and conduct, designated smoking areas, and no radio policies. Their routines, like those of Playa Vistas inhabitants, have been highly designed to purge possibilities for the unpredictable. After all, accidents, riots, and other modes of illicit social activity are what happen in the unplanned, chaotic world outside its walls. These signs of control indicate Playa’s graceful withdrawal from that radical heterogeneity and stifling bureaucratic mega-entity of the city, (and away from its potentially nefarious after-hours, its dark embrace of late-night-picnics-turned-drunken-sexual-escapades-in-the-park) into the isolated parochial world of the village—one in which the scale of its perceived legal entity is compacted into the tidy privatized kernel of the Homeowners Association, along with its many proscriptive, yet somehow more palatable codes of conduct and lifestyle. This condition of autonomous private rule, of “city peace” has been explored by Gerald Frug, who observes: “[Homeowners associations] are seen as embodiments of the freedom of association, even democracy. Since those who live in a homeowners association govern themselves by electing a board of directors, the argument runs, the rules imposed upon the residents are self-imposed…expressing the notion of community historically connected with America’s colonial towns” (Frug 57).
Playa Vista then, is the closest thing to well-planned paradise one’s $300-$800 monthly (and mandatory) dues to the homeowners association can buy--Urbanity with a dress code. And, of course if you forget to “Watch Your Step”, you are humbly reminded that Neighborhood Watch is watching it for you.
Signs of Place Places like Playa Vista are born from the convergence of many valid and timely critiques of our prevailing patterns of settlement nation-wide. Their hyperdesign is a reaction to the fallout of the post-war development fiesta—America’s ubiquitous landscape of parking lots, burger joints, suburbs leapfrogging carelessly and anonymously into distant hinterlands, the alienating raptures automobile dependence, its ties to a deadly game of global politics, the fundamentally unsustainable charade of cheap abundant energy upon which it relies, and in general, a built environment deemed by many as little more than a psychological wasteland. Cultural critic James Howard Kunstler has referred to it more succinctly as the “Geography of Nowhere”, and Los Angeles has long been its poster child--characterized by precisely these processes of fragmentation, polycentric sprawl, the frenzy of car-culture, a place defined in large part by its own lack of place. New Urbanism’s remedial counterattack is the rekindling of what many presuppose as the “fundamental qualities of real towns: pedestrian scale, an identifiable center and edge, integrated diversity of use, and defined public space” (Katz 4). Early built experiments in the application of these principles have given rise to “places” (or more precisely, insular resort communities) like Windsor, and Seaside, Florida (many would recognize the latter as the filming location for the Jim Carey film “The Truman Show”). Although there are aspects of Playa Vista that take exception to these precedents, its planning is entrenched in the same ideologies and principles, and could be understood at the very least to be a distant analogous cousin. Playa’s original plan came together in 1989, a joint effort that included contributions from New Urbanism’s most outspoken proponents (among them Stefanos Polyzoides, Andres Duany, and Elizabeth PlaterZyberk). At the time of the plan’s completion, it was hailed by some as a beacon of hope, and referred to as “one of the most ambitious efforts yet toward reversing today’s prevalent and destructive pattern of auto-oriented sprawl”. (Katz 179) Furthering its ambitions of difference, Playa Vista claims to offer what L.A. never had to give: an overwhelming sense of exactly where one is. From above, its internal transit routes, bikeways, and connected networks of public open space are represented in perfect diagrammatic clarity. Its array of cleverly titled, cleverly scaled boulevards are 24-27 feet apart, placed on a north to south axis oriented to maximize views of its surrounding geographical features, and its street titles present residents with a didactic narrative of sea-side pedestrianism—including “Seawalk Drive”, “Seabluff Drive” “Bluffcreek Drive”, and “Discovery Creek”. Early renderings of Playa Vista are teeming with similar hues of bucolic contextualism—boat races in the Ballona creek, blue herons soaring overhead, the rolling bluffs and parades of vibrant pedestrian activity fading out to the expansive southern California coastal skyline. From the earliest stages of its representation, Playa Vista’s fetishization of place has appropriated the convenient particularities of its environs, fused them with a laundry list of traditional planning principles and recast them as a consumable kitsch.
Large way-finding signs are placed at the corner of virtually every block in Playa, boasting large yellow arrows pointing clearly to its points of destination and interest. In case that’s not enough, there are placards complete with diagrammatic site plans proclaiming “You Are Here”. The sheer multitude of colorful directional arrows on any given block is incredible. I counted six on and around a single building, all pointing to the front door of a leasing office. If the rest of the American landscape suffers from a condition in which “Every place looks like no place in particular”, Playa suffers from the exact opposite condition--a kind of vertigo in reverse. Straddling the dizzying line between city and theme park, its obsessive overproduction of placehood is equally troubling—it’s literally impossible to get lost. Signs of Choice Nobody likes to be pigeon-holed, and Playa Vista knows this very well. It overcomes the tyranny of master-planned similitude by offering semblances of individual expression—a collage of different styles assigned to every block. And if there were any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of such mechanical eclecticism, Playa’s consortium of developers insists that all are carefully derived from “distinctive Southern California styles”. There’s The Avalon (Neo-Classical European), The Esplanade (Seaside Mediterranean), The Metro (Art Deco), Villa D’Este (LA Mansion-inspired Spanish Revival), Chatelaine (Elegant European), Paraiso (Romantic Mediterranean), Capri Court (1940’s West LA), and The Lofts (Soho and Soma). Of course each style boasts a unique palette of colors, textures, hardware, paving patterns, finishing materials, plant materials, all represented comparatively within their associated promotional materials, including the respective font choices (ranging from the wacky curly-cues of “Paraiso” to the sleek sans-serifed “Icon”), which are affixed to the front façades of the appropriate buildings (and the front covers of their accompanying pamphlets). Within these stylistic categories, more choices abound--single level flats, multilevel townhomes, multiple floor plans, a variety of decorative tile backsplashes, and for the truly discriminating, the option of “designer selected flooring”. It’s a branding exercise pushed to the brink of absurdity in which the lines and colors of the Mondrian homes seem to have been literally grafted from a Mondrian painting, (Playa’s version of a sterilized Modern to the tune of a million dollars plus) its own language held in playful juxtaposition to the earth toned stucco and cornice lines of the Avalon across the way. This disconnect between the arial plan view and the elevation of the city clearly illustrates the process of Playa’s conception. Indicated here is the totalizing condition of the plan precluding all other considerations, providing the scale and armature for the city (the footprint and relative height of every block is almost identical), rendering the elevation an endlessly fungible surface upon which to project its empty gestures of style. A stroll through Playa then becomes very much like a stroll through a car lot filled with identical SUV’s of different colors--complete with signs indicating their availability. And you can have anything you want, so long as it’s already here.
Signs of Conflict Looking down now from the elevated perspective of OneWestbluff (another bourgeoning master-planned development of single-family homes to the other side of Lincoln Boulevard), a sagging yellow rope feebly delineates the threshold between the last ambitious surge of residential development on the west side and what is perceived by many as the last vestige of the Natural in Los Angeles. Here another sign has been staked. It reads “Environmentally Sensitive Area. Keep Out”, signifying the fierce 20 year battle for Ballona that continues to rage, a classic diatribe that pits the interests of conservation against the interests of development. In the red corner, outraged conservationist movements present a persuasive narrative of loss. After all, before Playa moved in, this was the single largest swath of undeveloped land in the city, home to Ballona Wetlands (one of the few remaining fresh water marshes in the state), habitat for a lengthy list of endangered species, as well as its more recent discovery as an ancient native American burial ground (Bates 7). The impetus to save the site from the perceived calamities of private development has seen its share of impassioned protests, hunger strikes, grassroots citizens campaigns, and has mobilized a small army of official organizations dedicated to its protection and awareness including the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the Sierra Club Ballona Task Force, Ballona Valley Preservation League Alliance for Survival, Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, LA Green Party, LA Earth First, CALPIRG, Sea Shepherd Society, and the Wetlands Action Network (Garcia, 5). In the blue corner, the strategy of Playas developers has been less emotional, but more effective: pay everyone off. In the year 2000, Playa capital spent more money lobbying the city of Los Angeles than any other company, 12.5 million to a restoration fund for maintaining the what’s left of the wetlands, the expense of storage and re-interment of the 400 unearthed Tongva bodies, and millions more in individual contributions to city officials to vote in favor of development (Moyer). The greatest controversy has stemmed from the news that Playa’s investors, along with Socal Oil had fudged the results of soil reports proving the site was a contaminated with underground pockets of methane gas, hydrogen sulfide, and BTEX chemicals. By many estimates and official results, concentrations of these contaminates are higher than anywhere in the country, so high in some areas that methane gas can literally be seen bubbling up though puddles on the concrete slabs of the basements (hold a lighter over the bubbles and they’re likely to ignite into micro flame-throwers). Until comprehensive safety measures can offset the dangers presented by the gas, residents are provided with methane alarms placed in plain view on every building with instructions to evacuate immediately should they sound. I asked a resident of the Fountain Park apartments if she’d ever experienced the alarms, “They go off all the time”, she said. “Last night we were evacuated at three in the morning”.
Bernard Endras, a lawyer and engineering consultant describes a worst case scenario, recalling the Ross department store in the Fairfax district that spontaneously combusted in the mid 80’s as a result of similar deposits. “Under earthquake conditions, the soil could literally turn to quicksand, providing a chimney for the immediate migration of the gas directly underneath the buildings” (Moyer). Put more bluntly, Playa could be just a single tremor away from bursting into a ball of flames. Amid these signs of conflict another official idiom illustrates the pathology of Playa’s contradictory depictions of itself-- “Playa Vista…A place where nature lives in harmony with people”.
Signs of Community Prospective homebuyers less weary of such controversy are directed (by a series of strategic way-finding signs of course) to Playa Vista’s main showroom in the center of town, “The Guest House” where they are greeted by a friendly staff, colorful brochures in hand, walls of renderings and site plans, and an expansive sixteenth scale model of the entire first phase of Playa’s master-plan that takes up the majority of the room, offering an experiential glimpse of the city that exists just outside the walls of the office. Leaning in on the model I was struck by its almost perverse attention to detail—from the fully rendered vegetal texturing of the adjacent wetlands, every street, every building, every lamp-post, every blade of grass, right down to the individual expansion joints in the sidewalks, and even the art-deco embellishments of “The Metro” condominiums. Had not every physical aspect of the model been rendered in such high resolution, I might have easily overlooked another aspect in its prying lack of detail—the fact that the streets of the model were largely devoid of any reference to humankind. If one can suspend the possibility that the model maker was absent the day the people were to be glued down, this lack, this emptiness, is perhaps more significant. The model, like the city, represents a utopianism of spatial form, underscored by a mode of totalizing urban thinking that posits a “Direct causal relationship between the character of the physical environment and the social health of families and the community at large” (Duany, PlaterZyberk). This belief, (the raison d’etra of New Urbanism), that “community” is a question of design—that it is a spatially determined phenomena rather than a fluid process--is ironically also (what Michael Sorkin has described as) its central fallacy: that a shell of a city really is a city. In this top-down framework of urban logic, (riding the ironic wake of Modernism), human life is rendered as an incidental garnish, a secondary (if not outright inconvenient) input to the larger order of the city. Therefore it’s little wonder why the scaled people were missing here, in fact it’s by the very same logic that Corbusier’s ludicrous urban schemes could’ve willingly shoved a million people on a single city block without a second thought--both indicate a belief that professes, in so many words, that “If you build it, they will come”, (and behave, of course). But further confounding the problem of community in Playa Vista is the relatively narrow demographic of those who can actually afford to come, comprised almost entirely (as stated by one of the playa showroom
spokesman) of “empty-nesters and single emerging professionals”. To the extent that it excludes the underclass to their fate in the blighted city “out there”, its notions of community are ever narrowed--defined not by a climate of pluralism, cultural difference, economic interdependency, or the friction between various groups, but a “community” who’s only sense of connection is a common ability to flee, who’s terms of association are at best, the tentative ties of class (or even worse, in the playing out of its various styles and options), the tacit ties of relative taste. As elucidated elsewhere by David Harvey, there is indeed a darker side to the communitarian impulse: “From the very earliest phases of massive urbanization through industrialization, “the spirit of community” has been held as an antidote to any threat of social disorder, class war, and revolutionary violence. “Community” has ever been one of the key sites of social control and surveillance, bordering on overt social repression. Well-founded communities often exclude, define themselves against others, erect all sorts of keep-out signs (if not tangible walls)” (Harvey 3).
Despite its ponderous rhetoric of cohesion, Playa Vista succeeds in becoming yet another enclave of exclusion, with islands of exclusion within itself—a community imagined through the legibility of outward appearances, yet underscored by the same atmosphere of hyperindividualism that gave us the burbs. The doormats proclaiming “welcome” are thus sometimes misleading, as they are often adjacent to signs reading “Private Residence, Do Not Disturb Homeowner”.
Conclusion: Signs of Life Leaving the “Guest House” and the model, the soothing sounds of soft country classics trailing out into the street behind me, I’m back now within the realm of the full scale, the actual. I look out across to Concert Park, the heart of the city, a terraced open green space surrounded by mixed use zoning, designed and promoted as the epicenter of civic life in Playa. It’s flanked on all sides with large vinyl banners boasting vibrant depictions of its lofty communitarian promises--frothy cups of cappuccino, helmeted high-fiveing cyclists, leisurely inter-racial couples in the raptures of young love, carefree kids playing soccer in the park, and swaggering shoppers with bags in hand. Against this backdrop the scene below tells much different story. It’s Friday afternoon in the park—I’ll give you it’s a grey afternoon--but like the other parks I’d just strolled through (and the model) it’s dead silent, abandoned--not a single picnic or dog walker or lounging panhandeler, or Frisbee game in sight. I’ve seen parking lots with a more palpable sense of civic life. I realized that the model promised no more, but where were the neon parades of pedestrians I’d seen in the renderings? In fact, throughout the entire course of my psychogeographical drifting in Playa I could count the run-ins with potential neighbors on one hand--and that’s including the construction workers asleep in their cars. Heading back out to the fray, I’m struck by the expediency of a final sign—an electrical box printed on all sides with sunnier depictions of the external realities that exist just beyond it--An obstruction, turned image, turned window, turned mirror. It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else that the cunning of Playa’s signification, the contradictions of its fantasy,
indeed the very mechanics of its representational apparatus are brought glaringly to the fore--Its disavowal of a perceived ugliness, the superimposition of an a priori reality upon that which cannot be attained, the symbolic precedence of the way things ought to be. It is here that Playa elucidates its peculiar semiotic slippages and outright reversals--the simultaneous coincidence of the fake real and the real fake. Of course in L.A., the growth medium of so many contemporary spectacles, that which seems has always triumphed over that which actually is. Its urban trajectories are no exception, they too have been propelled from its formational stages by developer speculation, and the cleverly crafted booster myths. If it can be argued that Playa Vista merely represents the logical extreme of such lucrative hallucinations, what then, one might ask, is the big deal? Beyond a fascinating deluge into the contemporary manifestations of the simulacra, what’s at stake here is its viability as a model for the future patterns of human settlement. Is it possible that such reductive and totalizing modes of urban thinking disregard the features of a functional city that can’t be depicted in even the most detailed of physical models? That in its fetishization of the Nice, it’s actually neglected the less predictable, less tangible forces that make cities work? My fear is not that New Urbanism is asking the wrong questions, or responding to very real concerns about the deficiencies of the built environment, but that it proposes smoke-and-mirror solutions that don’t deliver what they claim. Propped up clumsily on the vicissitudes of its many (vital) lies, Playa Vista will likely continue to seem itself into existence well into the future, and many will continue to flock to its digestible semblances of urbanity, its vague speculative claims (“Can living in Playa Vista Really Increase Your Life Expectancy?” ®). But you can’t sustain a community on specters of community, just like you can’t sustain an economy on Coffee, Pedicures and Dry-cleaning. But maybe it’s also just too soon to call, and any conclusive value judgements would be premature for even the most qualified among its critics. The latest installment of the masterplan, entitled “Tempo”, will be opening its doors for a new wave of eager middle-class residents in the next couple of months. Soon the generous windows of Lincoln Boulevard’s latest expanse of colorful stuccoed elevations will begin to finally flicker with the promising glints of human habitation. Maybe this latest migration is precisely what it needs, a cure to the dysfunctional slumps of its youth. So rather than a polemic, I’m willing to give it the benefit of doubt. Today it sits in relative silence, the soft construction clamor of its 2nd phase (a large industrial park and even more residences) now underway in the distance. Like the fabled Spruce Goose constructed by Howard Hughes on this very site a half century prior, this urban experiment is similarly marked by looming doubts as to its magnitude, its cost, and the likelihood of its ultimate success. Will Playa Vista lift off to become the next great enclave of Los Angeles? Or is it cursed forever by restless spirits of unearthed shaman and extinct southwestern willow flycatchers, destined to erupt spontaneously into a burning cloud of methane tomorrow morning? For now we can only cross our fingers, hold our breath, and hope.
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